Thursday, September 6, 2012
Classic Lit Re-Read: Sundiata by D.T. Niane
Translator: G.D. Pickett
Date: c.13th century (1965)
Read: for Survey of African Civilizations class
Reading time: two days
I originally read Sundiata last summer (2011), and you can find my first review of it here. It's interesting to see how my thoughts differ upon two different readings. Honestly, I don't remember much from the first time, and my comments about it then are not always what I thought about it this time.
A little backstory: Sundiata (alternately spelled Sunjata) was the founder of the Mali Empire around 1230 AD. From the Mandinka ethnic group, he returned from exile as a young man to lead his allies in battle against Soumaoro, an evil sorcerer-conqueror. The epic is primarily about Sundiata's childhood and adolescence in exile as well as his victory over Soumaoro as he builds his empire in West Africa.
What stuck out to me this time: It's important to note that I'm currently slogging through The Iliad, which I think is slow and boring (more on that when I finally finish it and can write a full review). So, as I mentioned in the original review, Sundiata is very refreshing as an epic because it is not at all slow and boring! It's short, there's action, and the writing/translation reads very easily. I believe I enjoyed the book more this time than last - I was really getting engrossed in the story, excited to see what would happen next and how Sundiata would be able to face and then triumph over his troubles. On the scale of epic excitingness, Sundiata ranks up with Beowulf (the good translation by Heaney) and not down with The Iliad...
Of course, since I was reading this for a class, I was also analyzing a little bit throughout the book. 1) There's an interesting interplay between Islam and the traditional Mandinka religion. It's noted by somewhat later travelers such as Ibn Battuta (more on him later, too) as well; though West Africa adopted the Islamic religion, it did not adopt Arab culture. This creates some weird contrast when you have Sundiata being compared to the Mandinka hunter god while he fights "the bulwark of fetishism against the word of Allah" (p41). 2) The epic is kind of like the Arthurian legends - it's hard to tell how much to take as fictional story and how much to take as accurate historicity. Supernatural elements, for example, make sense in a cultural context, but modern readers have issues taking them as actual history. 3) The epic is propaganda. There's this whole current running underneath where Sundiata is set up THE ENTIRE TIME as being a great ruler because he demonstrates various king-like abilities in a bunch of different situations. Meanwhile, Soumaoro is portrayed as quite a cold-hearted, cowardly villain. Well, they say history's written by the winners...